Caroline: When you close your eyes and imagine the setting of an Agatha Christie story, what do you see? A grand country house, perhaps, or an idyllic English village complete with its own spinster sleuth. For all that the Queen of Crime is lauded for her plots, she deserves praise for her settings, too.
Beyond the more exotic locations featured in books like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, there is a whole network of interconnected, seemingly ordinary, places that lie behind Christie’s fiction. It interacts with her biography too — the more you read her work, the more you realise that her characters’ lives are superimposed upon her own.
If you’ve ever walked into a hotel lobby or a village hall and thought “this looks like it should be in an Agatha Christie novel”, then this episode is for you. Because today, we’re exploring Agatha Christie’s England.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
This episode marks a very special occasion. Over the last few months I’ve been working on something behind the scenes, and now it’s finally being released out into the world. It shares the title of this episode — Agatha Christie’s England — and is a map and a guide to the real life locations that appear in Christie’s fiction. I’ve scoured every novel and short story, as well as the Queen of Crime’s own life and autobiography, to find the most interesting places to include. As well as my writing, it also includes period-inspired illustrations and a postcard, so that you can send a loved one your best wishes from somewhere you discover on your travels with the map. It’s being published by Herb Lester Associates, an independent publisher that produces lovely literary guides and gifts, and is now available to order directly at shedunnitshow.com/map. I have also made an audiobook version of it, for those who really like to hear me talking about Agatha Christie. The first 100 people to pre-order the map will get the audiobook for free, and then after that it’s available for purchase. This has been a really fun project to work on, and I hope you like it as much as I do.
If you’ve been listening to this show for a while, you already know that I’m someone who really, really loves to research. Amassing information is something I’m pretty good at — I’m arguably better at that than knowing what to do with it once I have it. It won’t be any surprise to you, then, to know that the initial list of places I gathered for the map was a lot longer than the ones that we could actually fit. There are I think 45 entries in the guide, and my initial list had at least double that. Agatha Christie wrote a lot of books, stories and plays, and she sent her characters to a lot of different places.
In this episode, I’m going to talk about the sense of place in Christie’s books, her own favourite locations, and some of the trends that I observed while putting together the map. We’re also going to look into a surprising mystery connected to one of Christie’s most famous places.
Agatha Christie was a very well travelled woman, both by the standard of her time and even compared with how much most people move around today. She attended a finishing school in Paris for a year in her teens and then spent the winter after she turned 17 in Cairo. This trip was supposedly organised for the sake of her mother’s health, but there was an ulterious social motive to it. The family was comfortably off but not so wealthy that they could afford to give their second daughter a “season” as a debutante in London. By wintering in Egypt, Agatha was able to go to lots of dances at a fraction of the cost and there was a ready supply of British suitors from the colonial regiments and administrative services stationed there.
Then in 1922 Agatha and her husband Archie Christie were invited to join a tour to promote international participation in the upcoming British Empire exhibition. This was a ten month trip that required them to leave their small daughter Rosalind at home with her grandmother, and took them to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada. And of course, towards the end of the 1920s Agatha began to travel to the Middle East, and her subsequent marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan made her familiar with parts of Syria and Iraq where they travelled for excavations. The locations for some of her best known books, such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, were drawn from her personal experiences of travel.
But our focus here is Agatha Christie’s England, not her adventures overseas. Where I do think the two are connected is in her powers of observation — a seasoned traveller often possesses the ability to imbibe the atmosphere of a place quickly and accurately, and I think that’s part of the skill on display in Christie’s writing about place. She doesn’t devote lengthy passages to the description of landscape, but she makes sure that the reader is aware of how bumpy the road is or what the house feels like when you first walk into it.
Something that I became very aware of while working on the map and guide is how much Christie’s personal orbit influenced the places she included in her fiction. She was born in Torquay in Devon, in the south west of England, and retained a connection to that area all of her life. Although she moved away when she first got married and later sold her childhood home Ashfield in 1938, she always had a residence in Devon. It’s easiest to write what you know, and she was very familiar with the seaside resorts of Cornwall, Dorset and the English riviera (as the coast of south Devon is sometimes called). Torquay, Salcombe, Dartmouth, Sidmouth and others all make repeated appearances in novels throughout her career, from the fictional Cornish resort of “St Loo” in Peril at End House to Tommy and Tuppence’s trip to Bournemouth in N or M?. Specific seaside hotels, such as the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, even turn up multiple times, sometimes in disguise, and sometimes – as in the case of Sleeping Murder, just as themselves.
This is a regular trick of Christie’s — the places that she knew best are reused over and over again. Her own house in Devon, Greenway, makes numerous appearances in novels as different as Five Little Pigs and Ordeal by Innocence, with different aspects of the house and grounds emphasised as the plot requires. Realism in the setting for whodunnits is so established in the genre that the inclusion of maps and floorplans is standard, so it makes sense that being able to pace out the distances in a real place when working out an alibi would be a big help to an author.
Aside from the south west, London is another area where Christie’s locations are clustered thickly together. She lived in London on and off throughout her adult life, from the time immediately after the first world war when she and Archie were first setting up home together, though to her time working in a hospital there during the second world war, and beyond. Perhaps because her readers were more likely to be familiar with the city’s geography, I found that in London she was less likely to play fast and loose with the layout. The Ritz Hotel, for instance, crops up whenever a flashy American character needs to be introdued, such as in the case of Julius P Hersheimer in The Secret Adversary. It is sometimes poorly disguised as “the Blitz”, but it’s always the same luxurious establishment on Piccadilly. Christie’s characters, too, rarely stray from central and west London — again, the places that she would have been familiar with herself. She had a variety of London addresses over the years, but they were all in west London — Kensington, Chelsea, St John’s Wood, Hampstead, and so on. And thus, I found, rarely if ever do her characters stray into east London or south of the river.
Almost as interesting the places that Christie does include in her fiction are the ones that are absent. Since the map and guide are about “Agatha Christie’s England”, I was keen to put in locations all around the country, both just for interest’s sake and because it visually makes for a better map if the dots are nicely spread out. However, Christie really didn’t make this easy for me. There are two hotspots in the south west and in London, as I’ve said, and then a smattering of other places in the south east — such as the real house and swimming pool on the south Downs that inspired the house in The Hollow. But then there’s a big gap in the Midlands, and a much sparser spread of locations in the north of England. With a few exceptions that I’ll talk about in a second, her northern places also tend to be much less defined. Even I, who love digging through footnote after footnote late at night, had to admit defeat on a few where I just couldn’t find any real life analogue for a place in a book. I suspect that Christie just wasn’t as familiar with the north in general, and as such was much vaguer about her descriptions. Sir Bartholomew Strange’s country house in Three Act Tragedy, Melfort Abbey, particularly haunted me — it is only described as being “in Yorkshire”, and has no distinguishing features beyond the basic requirements of four walls and a door that might help to plot it on a map.
The exception to this northern vagueness, however, is to be found in Christie’s familiarity with the area around her brother in law’s estate at Cheadle near Manchester. Agatha’s older sister Madge married James Watts, heir to Abney Hall, in 1902 and the writer stayed with them often. Country houses such as Chimneys in The Secret of Chimneys and Stoneygates in They Do It With Mirrors were inspired by her stays at Abney, and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas — another country house murder mystery — is dedicated to Watts.
After the break: what actually is Miss Marple’s address?
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Agatha Christie’s writing career began in 1920, and her last full novel was published after her death in 1976. England changed a lot during the six decades in which she was writing, and we can track that through the way she writes about the settings of her stories. In her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we have a very typical English village of the early twentieth century. Styles St Mary, the village near the country house Styles Court, is meant to be in Essex, but it could really be anywhere in southern England within easy reach of London. The big house has an expansive park around it, and the lady of the house does good works in the village – mostly in aid of the war effort, since this book is set during the first world war. There’s a land agent who helps to take care of the estate and a home farm where tenants work the land. Part of the mystery that Christie weaves is to do with the shock people experience when this template is disrupted, and how much this impedes their ability to disentangle what is real and what is not. Mrs Inglethorp’s marriage to an inappropriate and bearded younger man is tantamount to a declaration of war on a way of life.
Compare this to a book like Third Girl from 1966, which revolves around a flatshare in west London and takes in the much freer, looser social mores of the time in which it was published. Norma Restarick, the main character, is 19 or 20 and doesn’t really know what to do with her life, but she certainly craves a kind of independence that would have been unthinkable for her counterparts in the Christie novels of three decades earlier.
Agatha Christie has a reputation for portraying an idealised version of England, in which everyone knows their place and the perfect village is untouched by progress. I don’t think she really does this, though. I think it’s a perception imbibed from serial television adaptations, in which screenwriters flatten the chronology in order to get around the problem of how Poirot or Miss Marple might age. There’s a cosy “forever England” aesthetic to Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead in the various TV series that isn’t there in the books. After all, Miss Marple is always telling the reader that there is nowhere so vicious and dangerous to live as a small village. She derives all of her detective skill, she says repeatedly, from having observed all of the worst vagaries of the human character in such a small, rural idyll.
And that village is not static either. When we first visit St Mary Mead, there is a certain sense of permanence about it — that everyone knows everyone else inside out. But then in post WW2 Miss Marple novels such as A Murder is Announced, things are changing. St Mary Mead is expanding with new houses and new people are moving in. People who don’t come with formal letters of introduction and who haven’t got grandparents who have always lived in this village. It’s a destabilising force that is woven into the mystery, but it’s not something that really comes through strongly on television, where all of Miss Marple’s cases seem to occupy a kind of timeless state somewhere between 1935 and 1955.
Speaking of St Mary Mead — where actually is it? I get asked this fairly regularly by listeners, likely confused by all the different references to its location in various books and adaptations. It’s a regular mystery, and one that I’ve devoted a lot of time to trying to solve. Sometimes it seems like it’s in the west country, such as in 4.50 from Paddington when the village is clearly on a train line that heads west out of the capital. At others, it seems to be near the Hampshire or Dorset coast, as in The Body in the Library. On occasion, Christie unhelpfully defines its location in relation to other entirely fictional places that she’s invented, such as in Nemesis when we are told that it is 12 miles from Danemouth, 12 miles from Loomouth and quite near Much Benham.
Miss Marple’s house itself, Danemead, is modelled on Christie’s own house near Wallingford in Oxfordshire, which in turn serves as the pattern for the recurring location of Market Basing in books like Dumb Witness and By the Pricking of My Thumbs. But St Mary Mead itself remains elusive.
Just to complicate matters further, St Mary Mead actually first appears in a Poirot novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train as the village from which heiress Katherine Grey departs for the south of France. Then, it’s in Kent, but in later stories it moves variously to the fictional counties of Downshire, Radfordshire and Middleshire. The BBC used the Hampshire village of Nether Wallop as the setting for the Joan Hickson Miss Marple adaptations, that being both a good filming location and also a decent guess at where a St Mary Mead type village might be.
At a certain point, awash with all of the contradictory distances and locations for St Mary Mead, I became convinced that Agatha Christie was teasing her readers. As the fanbase for her books increased, more and more companion texts were published that sought to expand and explain the universe of her works — I even came across one very patronising guidebook that tried to explain to Americans how small England is by comparison to the US. Perhaps by refusing to give St Mary Mead a real world location, Christie was resisting the force that was turning her work into a miniature tourism industry in its own right. Or maybe it was just more convenient to keep Miss Marple’s village firmly in the realm of the imagination, where it could be moved about southern England as plots required.
So while there are plenty of real life locations from Agatha Christie books that you can visit, from the grand hotels of the English riviera to the chilly hills of the Isle of Man, the most famous place in her fiction, St Mary Mead, isn’t on any maps. The fact that it is so real to her readers, though, is testament to her skill as a writer. There’s more than one way to travel, and paging through a smart whodunnit is certainly a good one.
Even if you can’t travel very far in real life at the moment, I hope you can still open up your map and get lost in Agatha Christie’s England.
This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. My guide to Agatha Christie’s England, published by Herb Lester Associates, is now available to order at shedunnitshow.com/map. Links to this and all the other books and sources I mentioned in the episode are available at shedunnitshow.com/agathachristiesengland. On the website I also publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
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Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.